This Prodigal Son review contains no spoilers.
“There is no such thing as monsters,” young Malcolm Bright is assured by his serial killer father early in the pilot of Fox’s new twist on the police procedural Prodigal Son. This serves as the central dichotomy of the premise: being told by a monster they don’t exist. Monsters don’t want to get caught and they’ll say anything to justify their continued freedom. Who could be better at catching these creatures than someone who was raised by one? Possibly no one, and probably anyone.
Malcolm, played by The Walking Dead‘s Tom Payne, grew up to be a psychologist, forensic profiler, and all around “acquired taste,” according to NYPD Detective Gil Arroyo, played by Lou Diamond Phillips (Longmire, Stand and Deliver), who scoops up the fallen agent after he’s dumped by the federal cops. Malcolm is trouble. He is problematic. He’s a chip off the old block, we hear by the second episode. But he saved Arroyo’s life when a murder investigation led to “the Surgeon.” Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen) was one of the most notorious serial killers in America during his reign of terror. A brilliant man, born of a wealthy family, he probably would have operated for years if the son hadn’t turned him in. But does that make the son a hero?
The feds don’t think so. They see Malcolm as a narcissistic loose cannon who goes around knocking local sheriffs on their ass for interrupting his soliloquies. Arroyo’s team, Detectives Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) and J.T. Tarmel (Frank Harts) don’t think so. They suspect Malcolm might be a psycho. There is certainly enough evidence. Even Malcolm’s mother Jessica, eloquently voiced by Bellamy Young who played Mellie Grant in Scandal, doesn’t think so and she’s got a pillbox filled with leftovers which can convince her of anything.
The show bills itself as House meets Hannibal, but Malcolm is no Dr. House and Martin is no Hannibal Lector. Michael Sheen puts on a mannered comic performance reminiscent of his Wesley Snipes character in NBC‘s sitcom 30 Rock. Every day references mean little to his Martin Whitly as he was raised a little differently. He gives off an air of studious indifference, but will still break his inner bad guy code for a hug from his son, who manages to always stay one step beyond the shackles which bind the surgeon to his work space.
Like Dr. Gregory House, Malcolm has quirks and rubs people the wrong way. Recognized as one of the best in the business, he is recovering from a trauma which makes people cut him some slack when it comes to social interaction, and even more so when it leads to interpersonal collision. Payne’s quirky mannerisms are a little self-conscious in the pilot. Malcolm begins to grow into them by episode 2, “The Annihilator.” This may not be the same for his stubble which, while it remains as constant as it did on Dr. House, still looks clean shaven on Malcolm. Hugh Laurie brought a dented gravitas to his diagnostician. The prodigal son brings night terrors.
The show gets his name from a biblical story about a man who turns away from his family to indulge himself only to be favored when he comes home. It is appropriate the title character is played by a guy who used to play a character named Jesus. He’s a little judgy. While he paraphrases The Bible saying he doesn’t judge, he makes pronouncements regularly and is far too eager to descend into the pits of hell before being saved in the nick of time. He even does battle with a snake, twice. He wins one and loses one. Malcolm likes to take chances.
The pilot works as a neat little intro, perhaps a little too neat, and certainly too tidy, to the family and procedural dynamic. Bright is pulled into a case which hits very close to home. Too close. His brilliant mind gets answers but his shortcuts bite the hands that feed him. This is especially true when they work too hard for a punch line, which happens when Bright opts to beat a clock through an amputation and makes a real hatchet job of it in the pilot. His superiors still bust on him about by “The Annihilator.” This is a good sign that his foibles will add up to incremental job insecurity in the future.
The serial killer they cops are chasing in the pilot is trying to exert the most pain imaginable from his victims. The show ties a little BDSM into the mix, and lets Keiko Agena, as pathologist Edrisa, extoll the virtues of Japanese rope bondage during a post-mortem examination. Edrisa tries to pump some life into her professional relationship with Malcolm on the crime scene of “The Annihilator,” which follows another family-entangled murder. While it is not the Whitly family name on the line, Martin finds ways to keep its reputation intact.
For a twist on the usual, Prodigal Son draws heavily from now-overused TV insights into the methods employed by professional profilers. Malcolm can tell his sister Ainsley Whitly (Halston Sage) is lying because she has a “tell.” Ainsley is an on-the-spot reporter, coincidently investigating all of the cases her brother is advising on. The series, which comes from Riverdale executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, is derivative in the way all network television is derivative. The series was written and created by Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver who seem to be trying to pull interesting characteristics off other shows like legs off a spider in order to fill the TV void left by the conclusion of Hannibal.
As the series moves on to killer of the week, it is sure to find its footing and audience. It will mix Sherlock Holmes detective work with Freudian undertones. It probably won’t even leave out the cocaine because Jessica is sure to know how to score it, and Malcolm has an interesting drug history himself.
The pilot was directed by Lee Toland Krieger, who keeps the narrative flowing, the action progressive and the comedy dark. The job is the only place Malcolm feels most normal because he gets to think like killers think. This raises the gallows humor because Malcolm gets to put his head under the blade for laughs. In dissecting the workings of murderous minds, the best criminal psychologist in the business empathizes with the killers and alienates his superiors. While this is an age old story for TV, murder is the Whitly family business.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.